The River Unwinding

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EVERYBODY NEEDS ARIVER. RIVERS HELP YOU FOCUS, COMPRESSING THE WORLD INTO CURRENTS AND BENDS.When you’re looking for an antidote to the crazies, a river is the place to be.Maybe it’s their endless movement, the way they continuously flow off tosomewhere fresh. Or maybe it’s the way they can take us back to where we’vebeen. Whatever it is, the more time you spend on one, the better. If you wantthe full dose, take a float trip.

There’s noquestion that shooting a serious run in a whitewater raft will leave youadrenaline-high, grinning in self-congratulatory glee. Sure, you’ll quicklyreturn to the fishing, but with an ear cocked for the voice of the next rapids.I’ve done many winter floats, and think of them as hushed journeys, the waterdark and viscous. This time of year, though, my mind wanders to summer floatson favorite rivers, when the shoulder-baking sun is hot enough to make a lizardsmile. One such trip took place a few summers back.

In mid-July thingsslow down on central Oregon’s John Day River. Gone are both the holiday crowdsand the dangerous high water. At the start of the float I was fired up fromtraveling and out of tune with the river’s sluggish, sliding pace. My guide andfriend Matt Shore tried to slow me down. “Give the damned bug a three-countbefore moving it,” he said. “Let the fish eyeball it.”

All rivers andtheir fishing have a rhythm, and I was surely not adjusted to this one. I putdown my rod, sat back and looked up at the soaring sandstone cliffs. Turningdownstream, I watched the scenery change as we slid around each bend. In placesthe cliffs marched tight to both banks; in others the country opened into widejuniper-studded sage flats. There were fields of cheatgrass pocked by smalloval cacti with large spikes. Mule deer and sometimes antelope grazed in thegreener plains between hills. It was quiet.

I was getting itnow. In the hot sun, the slowly changing scenery and steady downstream movementhelped to uncoil my mainspring, and I started fishing at a walk. Most of thebass were pretty small, and I wondered why only some sported the smallmouth’ssignature red eyes. Then guide Bob Evans jolted my aimless musing when hepassed us in his raft.

“We weregetting lots bigger fish in May through June,” Bob said as he rowed by. Ididn’t care. Some of our fish would have weighed if we’d been in competition,but here, now, size didn’t matter. The incredible numbers of fish we werecatching had us giggling.

We lunched andcamped at sites named for the bizarre rock formations, names that ranged fromthe entertaining to the obscene. One lunchtime we had Green Goo for dessert.This verdant Jell-O with pistachios and other surprises in it triggeredsnickers from the guides. Don told us why.

“We’d gottenaway with using coolers instead of bear boxes on three trips,” Don began.”On one trip on the Rogue, though, a bear got into the coolers. He sampledsome fish and a few other things, but he carried the Tupperware tub with Anne’sGreen Goo up a hill and licked it clean. Well, on the return trip the bear gotinto the rafts again and opened the coolers. He didn’t touch a thing, but thatGreen Goo container was chewed to shreds. I guess he got ticked off when theGoo ran out, because he left us a present in the raft. It was a big enough pilethat we had to use a shovel to get it out.”

In the eveningsafter a swim, we sipped on beer and watched the sun do its magic on the cliffs.The colors bled from yellow to deep orange-red, and if you let your imaginationwander you could see incredible faces in the ragged escarpments. At dusk thenight hawks came–“bull bats.” To catch their suppers, they turnedcomplete somersaults in the air as if they’d been launched from trapezes.

If you chose tosleep outside your tent, there was a good chance of insomnia. The stars werethat intense. If you did manage to sleep, birds and the light woke you early,and once an elk herd drifted nearby. Each morning I ambled toward the scent ofbrewing coffee. Behind the smoke of the cook fire, Matt lamented, for mybenefit, the loss of Petey, a favorite popper of his that I’d broken off. Ilooked toward the next bend in the river, my franticpaced fishing tamed. Ihoped the take-out was a long way off.